About me ~~
I began this life in Philadelphia, PA, at Jefferson hospital, where my father was a medical researcher. By virtue of his inhouse position, my mother was given a special painkiller for my birth, heroin, and I can only imagine how that influence conjoined with the forceps, slapped bottom, and bright fluorescent lights, has affected me since! I was soon moved to NW Ohio where I grew up in the small college town of Bowling Green. I collected bugs, walked in the woods at night a lot, wondered at the disturbing emotions generated by the competitions that seemed to permeate my young life. I also read a lot: travel and adventure stories, fantasy and science fiction, to the point of being highly dissatisfied with my suburban life. I was constantly wanting to move. To Wyoming, or Tahiti, or Narnia. My parents, on the other hand, threatened to send me to a military school whenever I got to rebellious, which usually shut me up.
After high school, I gradually made my way west, collecting degrees along the way. I graduated with an BA from the University of Colorado, Boulder (1980), and an MA in anthropology (medical) from San Francisco State University (1993). At SFSU I did research in Taiwan (where I lived for close to 3 years) on traditional Chinese concepts of sexual vitality, and the practices that dissipate or strengthen it. I also studied tai chi chuan there, and upon my return to SF started to teach a series of classes in this Taoist movement art. These gatherings became a kind of school, which included ceremonial work, such as toning, smudging, prayer, visualizations, etc. These elements of spirituality and holistic health were complemented by a third, ecological awareness, when in 1995 I decided to take a growing interest in medicinal/sacramental plants and the lifeways they teach, to a doctoral program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
My education at UH began in ethnopharmacology and medical anthropology, but increasingly moved in the direction of ecological studies. My research eventually focused on the great herbalist traditions of the world, their role in spiritual revitalization movements, and their common prescriptive message to humanity. I developed these interests within the emerging field of spiritual ecology, and received my PhD in anthropology in 2001. You can find a PDF version of my 2001 dissertation on the UH website. Simultaneously, I was running ceremonial healing gatherings in the high jungles of Oahu, an example of which you can read about in this article.
I thereafter taught classes at UH, Chaminade University, and Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu (2000 – 2003). These included a variety of courses in the social sciences and humanities. During this time (and after) I also organized groups seeking to participate in the plantas maestras (teacher plants) tradition of healing in Amazonian Peru, specifically a practice known as the dieta. I worked with local curanderos in the capacity of finding, screening, and educating candidates (mostly non-Peruvians) for these initiatory events. This involved extensive travels in which I gave talks and workshops on the various cultural, musical, and yogic subjects I was learning from the ‘University of the Forest’. I accompanied the groups on their dietas, fully participated in them, assisted, and helped people integrate their experience. After 4 years of that travelling Circus, I found myself becoming as ‘ash’ to my previous interests and self-identity, and took a long break to give attention to my own integration.
This led to my relocation to central WA, where I worked among the rooted folk growing on a herb farm of the permaculture persuasion, which, luckily for them, and me, was run with much love and efficiency. From there I emerged into the greater NW, and eventually Portland, where I more or less settled, or at least based myself, for a number of years. My work has evolved into a synergizing of the teachings I have received from my multi-faceted education, to bridge the worlds, to . . . sylva-pollinate! Much of this involves rippling out the lifeways and cultural forms that birth and affirm themselves in earth-conscious ceremonial gatherings; of deepening my participation in the global movement of spiritual awakening.
I am currently involved in a number of projects. These include writing a series of articles and essays on the matured human the plants, as elders to the human tribe, and by extension the greater ‘society of Nature’, seem to be working diligently to help birth. Most of these can be found in the ‘sylvapolitan lounge‘. I also give these as talks in a number of venues, though I am heeding the visceral Call to communicate the same things in the bardic mode of SINGING. Resonance transfer! Out of the head and into the body! I feel strongly motivated to assist in the seeding of the world with heart-birthed songs of mythic renewal, which just need a little care and exercise to do their Work. I do this by offering Creation-song circles (relatively) regularly in Portland, and elsewhere on my travels. This includes providing resources, such as ‘The Human Flowering Songbook’, and various in situ recordings (most of which you can receive – email me for details), for people to carry on with a devotional voice practice, by themselves or with others. I also organize and help facilitate various gatherings that ally with the sylvapolitan vision, the most developed being Singing Alive.
I also offer sessions in the healing art of ‘vocal vitality’. The blurb goes like this: ‘This is an organic approach to improving your speaking and singing voice based on the principles behind naturalistic medicine (e.g., ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine), and timeless shamanic techniques. A session initially emphasizes breathing, toning, and getting comfortable with whole-body sounding. We then use vocalized visualizations (vocalization + visualization = manifestation) to help awaken your ‘Creation-body’, the living earth within each of us. An activated Creation-body inspires us with purpose, strength, and an authentic voice. Once that voice begins to reveal itself, I can offer a multicultural selection of mantras, chants, healing prayers, and songs of spirit to help give it form and direction. The ultimate goal is to apply this voice to setting new vibrational patterns that call in positive life changes. And to en-joy!’
My overall goal is to keep raising the creative, healing energies that the Earth, and all the awakened Beings allied with her, are offering to us in these times, and conduct them into form, into culture, to . . . perform the Dream. There is PLENTY juice seeping and singing out of this next Octave, and its bursting to further unleash itself. Time to Surf!
Om Shanti Ma
~~ morgan brent, aka MT Xen ~ 2010
Teachings, Talks, Song Circle Facilitation, and Workshops
Below are descriptions of courses I have an interest in teaching, and could turn each into a syllabus if that was required. Beyond that (and I do mean BEYOND), I do any number of talks, song circles, and workshops on these subjects, so I invite anyone interested to contact me and see what can get worked out . .
1. The Human Flowering Response in story and song
This class develops an organic, or better, ‘organismic’ understanding of spiritual life, one that focuses on the universal metaphor of flowering. It is taught in two parts (ideally by halving each meeting), what I call the ‘story’ and the ‘song’. The Story We can understand our spiritual life to begin when we feel the gravity of Union pull our spirit into deepening relations with the world around us. This gravity can also be felt in the world within us, as our embodied evolutionary heritage awakens and we feel it activating, thriving, beneath the sunlight of an open heart. As our frequency rises to metabolize this deepening communion, we open to a primordial lineage of transformation that helps us surrender to a higher octave. It is the same one that helps crystals emerge from rocks, flowers from plants, and butterflies from caterpillars. How we fertilize the soil of our incarnation (vitality practices), tend the garden of our relations (love thy neighbor), attend to the weather of our emotions (surface and clear), and improve the climate of our mind (imaginal hygiene and meditation), determines the extent to which this impulse matures and blossoms in each of us. To cultivate oneself with the intention to flower defines a way of life, one previewed in sacred cultures of the past, and given new forms and urgency in modern life. This class will survey various cultural expressions of human flowering, including esoteric understandings of the body found in Taoism and Hinduism, and the physiological alchemies (yogas of transformation) which they have engendered; Tibetan Buddhist flowering meditations; myths and iconography of plant-human shape-shifting, such as those found in the mystery religions of ancient Greece, and the medieval Greenman; Pre-Columbian views on the ‘vegetative soul’; and various scientific and philosophical views on human flowering, ranging from evolutionary biology to the works of Empedocles and Parmenides, R. Steiner, and C. Jung. The Song This section of the class is an experiential dimension of ‘the story’. We use it to flower our voice in a timeless ceremony of community cohesion. Seated in a circle, we breathe, tone, ‘sone’ (the liminal whirled between toning and singing), and sing our way through the story of Creation. We voice simple songs and chants from many spiritual traditions that take us through the journey of evolution. This allows us to reclaim our birthright as a singing species, and with it the embodied power of oral teaching traditions. Thru the imagery and teachings of the songs, thru evoking feeling states of blessing, devotion, and appreciation, we cultivate the ‘plant within’ and so awaken our body to its structural destiny to shed the egoic contractions of thought identification, and flower into a state of Life consciously aware of itself.
2. Indigenous Consciousness
We are inheritors of a culture of separation from Nature so severe that to be ‘normal’ is to act contrary to our own survival as a species. The primary guidance offered us by the original instructions encoded in our body and mirrored in the natural world, the ‘old language’ of spirit and its teachings, have been largely forgotten. The earth, however, is constantly calling us to re-member, to awaken from the trance of modernity. This class identifies and clarifies these whisperings, voices of an indigenous consciousness. We will follow its expression in the Gaian metabolism (dynamics of natural ecosystems), the ‘dharma’ (teachings) of its functioning, and the transmission of this dharma into mythic archetypes (the Dismembered Deity, Mother of Plants, Master of Animals, etc). Such myths have birthed ancient lineages of ceremonial and transformative arts and sciences, many of which are re-emerging, and now cross-pollinating, and blowing as seeds across the planet. From these currents a worldwide neo-indigenous movement is shaping itself, growing in the shadow of economic globalization, and in response to the spiritual anemia of much of humanity. Australian aborigines have born didgeridoos and the concept of Dreamtime; Amazonian tribal peoples have spawned ceremonial understandings of the world’s most sophisticated vision plants; Tibetans have sent the Dalai Lama and their form of Buddhism into the world; Native Americans, their sweat lodges and medicine wheels; Africans their ancestral drumming, dancing, and sculptural styles, and so on. It is now possible to do tai chi chuan in New York, ayahuasca ceremonies in Tokyo, and vision quests in Germany, to find Australian aboriginal web sites, solar power in rural India, and other such appropriate (and not so appropriate) technologies among indigenes worldwide. We identify and survey these cultural forms, many of them syncretic and hybridized (e.g. permaculture, plant-based Christian religions), and understand them as part of a revitalization movement guided by principles of indigenous consciousness. Such examples will serve our discussions of the many forms and definitions of indigeneity, including the politics of ownership of land and traditions, its use as a descriptor of earth-centered cultures; and its essentialization into a state of mind, available to anyone who chooses to walk the ways of the earth.
3. Herbalism and Culture Change
In this class we use different, and often competing models of herbal efficacy to understand varieties of human culture. For example, the active constituent (AC or pharmaceutical) model of herbalism is materialistic, mechanistic, and reductionist; it seeks to identify chemistries in plants with biological potential to act upon specific structures and functions in the human body to positive effect, or attack agents presumed to cause disease. Therapeutic relevance takes place on the level of molecules, usually in microscopic battles of dominance and exclusion. In contrast, the whole plant (WP or ecological) model is inherently vitalistic, holistic, and extends into animistic understandings of relationship; it necessitates an intact inner plant ecology to then ‘teach’ organizational order, impart life force, or otherwise nourish and balance the inner human ecology. These two models validate different medical ideologies, reflect different ways of knowing the world, and affirm different cultural ethos. In this class we use the AC metaphor to understand the forces of modernity, (e.g., patriarchy, scientific materialism, Protestantism) which have been crucial to the generation of Western culture, and by extension globalized industrialism. We then turn to the whole plant (WP or ecological) model of herbal efficacy, and apply it to understand cultures that are cosmologically and physically interactive with the productive forces of the land, that lack extensive social hierarchy and private property, and that value social elements that constellate around the procreative and nurturing principles associated with the feminine, (e.g., healers, midwives, gardeners, artists, and diviners). We use these models to critically analyze modern history, as they are especially relevant to understanding the ongoing relations between the many forms of the colonizers and colonized. They also illuminate the modern cultural wars (however we might define them), and point towards their resolution (as they have in an integrated herbalism) in synergistic ‘bridge cultures’ appearing worldwide.
4. Sylvapolitan Rising
The sylvapolitan is defined as a citizen of the great polis (ideal city-state) of Sylvatica, aka Nature, and is an increasingly conscious participant in the great Conversation that ‘voices’ the Gaian intelligence into the myriad forms we experience around us. The sylvapolitan is educated via self-transformation (unfurling the self in acts of knowing something by becoming it), accultured into the spiritual ecology that underlies natural ecosystems, and pro-active in the great Game of evolution. This all to the purpose of discovery of ever more subtle areas of connection (LOVE!) between self and other, to eventually abide in the Divine emptiness that both witnesses and creates the Theatre of Life. The sylvapolitan is the inheritor of the elder wisdoms of indigenous consciousness, lineages taught by the living multi-versity of the world, in both its horizontal aspects of form and vertical dimensions of spirit. S/he works in the interests of the planet, often acting out its immune functions to turn a crisis in to an experience of growth, the evolutionary journey by which life becoming increasingly aware of itself. The sylvapolitan is a prototypal model of human development, what C. Jung called an archetype. It contrasts with another archetype, the cosmopolitan, a model native to our current global industrial-growth culture, aka the mainstream. This much-lauded figure, with his/her university education, high income, consumerist life in city or suburb, has defined THE goal to aspire to for much of the modern story. However, the cosmos (world order) of the cosmopolitan spans a narrow spectrum of human possibilities. The education is overwhelmingly rational and book-based, the high income is thru a unsustainable, even suicidal, economy, and the conventional city is a Nature-desert, a species-deficient place to live and acculture yourself. For such reasons, the civilizations that birth cosmopolitans (in their various forms) are always short-lived. Like annual plants, they grow tall as empires, egoic-edifices of domination and plunder, and then inevitably crash as the karmas of their adventures bring the season of their dissolution. By contrast, the sylvapolitan is a perennial figure, one whose presence ebbs as civilizations rise, and flows forward again as they fall, to receive the nutrients released by their composting (art forms, technologies, spiritual insights, and such). As the current empire is in the last throes of an increasingly surreal dance of self-destruction, and has produced a particularly bountiful harvest of the fruits of its separation from Nature/Spirit (e.g., the internet, renewable energy technologies, planet-wide dispersal of spiritual traditions, images of earth from space, and graphic examples of the dangers of mind possession), the food source for the sylvapolitan is rich. This figure is currently engaged in bridging cultures, between the colonizers and the colonized, the head (eagle) and the heart (condor), in restoring a happy union between reason and spirit. In its most full-spectrum form, the sylvapolitan is the flow and future of humanity. Unsurprisingly, the sylvapolitan archetype, except in its economically significant fragments (increased popularity of yoga, organic foods, and so on) is unnoticed by the mainstream media, as it is locked into the story of the cosmopolitan’s withering world. This class explores the sylvapolitan as a template of human development and agent of culture change. We will also focus on how best to identify and utilize our own sylvapolitan instincts to effect graceful, nonjudgmental passage through changing social and economic realities.
5. What the Plants Teach
This class reverses the assumption of evolutionary science (and Creationism for that matter) that humans are ‘smarter’ than plants. By questioning our anthropocentric concepts of intelligence, we open to the possibilities that because plants are an elder life form, and are in fact responsible for much of life on the planet, they are in many ways wiser than us. We can approach this from a perspective shared by many indigenous peoples, that all plants are teachers if related to as such. How then do we learn? And what do they teach? The first question is addressed by understanding how dialogues can be carried on nonverbally in myriad subtle forms, smells, tastes, colors, and movements. These comprise ongoing, biochemically mediated, ‘conversations’ in the natural world. Humans are bodily equipped to participate in this flow of info-energy, and naturally do so if these abilities are not blocked by belief in ideologies of separation. We awaken this attunement through practiced sensory engagement with the world, through developing our senses as instruments of perception, and balancing the ratios by which we use them. This opens us to various aesthetics of resonance, deepening states of merging with the world, which allows intuitive knowings to more easily arise. We can then begin to ‘read’ the character of plants and what it is ‘voicing’, much like how an ayurvedic or TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner can ‘read’ the human body to diagnose and prescribe. To answer the second question we draw on herbalist traditions from around the world. We find they have a common worldview, and with it a prescriptive message to humanity. This message, or teachings, supposes the existence of an ecosystem intelligence that courses through the metabolic functions of the planet, including the individual and social bodies of humanity. As humans are on a journey of self-reflective consciousness, we can easily lose touch with this intelligence and the guidance it provides. What the plants teach, helps us remember this guidance, aids us in reordering the ecology of our existence when it goes awry, and reveals to us our great creative potentials in service to the evolution of awakening consciousness on this planet. This class will provide conceptual and experiential exercises to gain some fluency in the language of plants, especially as it has been known thru the ‘doctrine of signatures’. A section will also cover those plants with neurotransmitter-like alkaloids that appear as specialists in communicating with humans (just as there are humans who specialize in communicating with plants), by stimulating our imaginal cognition. These are often known as vision plants (though they have many names), and we will discuss their role in a variety of cultural settings, including shamanism, their use among spiritual seekers and ‘cultural creatives’ of modern society, and the current ‘drug war’.
6. The Culture of Nature
Our common definition of culture is that it is a unique human capacity to create a body of learned behaviors that is then taught (socially and symbolically transmitted) to others. This definition was developed with the founding of the social sciences, when anthropology claimed the concept to define their discipline: the study of man. Despite claims to objectivity, the scientific use of the term ‘culture’ serves a hierarchical function in categorizing the human tribe. Thus it came to be that societies with more unified human-nature relations were called primitive, savage, or barbaric, and those most divorced from the natural world (thought to have risen above, improved, or conquered nature) were known as modern, progressive, and advanced. Culture defined as a solely human attribute allows us to pull rank over the lesser life forms, those who were once thought to have little more than the hardwiring of instincts, and later, genetic programming, to teach them anything. These root assumptions are woven deep into the collective consciousness of much of humanity. They hover as a spell over the world, casting shadows of alienation, and ills founded on loss of familial connection with the greater community of nature, the earth clan, and with it loss of guidance, identity, and purpose. This class seeks to break this spell by understanding culture as a more inclusive concept, giving it a scope beyond the human-centered world. In this way we can see a cultural intelligence at work in the mating dances of Japanese cranes, the unfurling of a hibiscus flower, and the growth of a quartz crystal. In this way we see a larger culture of Nature at work in the common principles by which healthy natural ecosystems grow and sustain themselves; principles which evolve through the ages and turn through the seasons. To the extent a human, or human society, cultivates the ability to listen to and act on these principles, they are manifested into the human sphere as culture in its most primordial indigenous forms. This culture is taught through origin stories, and contains guidelines for right action in the world, instructions for humans to acculturate themselves as responsible participants in the greater society of nature. We will use this perspective to give critical analysis to the culture we have inherited, and explore the opportunity to re-enculture ourselves in a more expansive, enriched framework. How then does this re-define our sense of self, reprioritize our life purpose?
7. The Urban Organism
We have been accustomed to the notion that the city is opposed to nature, and that like a mad, or parasitic organism, the city destroys its surroundings a little more everyday. Lack of consciousness of the greater whole has brought cities to extinction in the past, and will again in the future if nothing changes. This course proposes that the organism metaphor holds the potential to reintegrate the city into a greater society of nature, and that origins and solutions to urban problems can usefully be understood within a biological framework. For example, bacterial colonies, with their built landscapes of sugar molecules facilitating communal food production, energy storage, waste disposal, communication, and transportation, can be understood as the earth’s oldest cities. Can not human-dominated cities, with their buildings growing out of the ground, traffic rushing as red and white blood cells through capillaries, and office building lights blinking off and on like neurons, also be understood as organisms? Can in turn the forest be seen as a sylvan city, with a ‘culture’ that flowers philosophies of reciprocity, art forms of diversity, and languages of interspecies dialogue, all necessary to maintain a fine-tuned ecological balance? By trading metaphors across the great human-nature divide, by humanizing nature and organicizing humanity, we can open up areas of investigation to sources in nature that have encountered, and overcome, many of the problems we find in contemporary human cities. Using the urban organism as a unifying metaphor, the course will survey the growing edge of movements in urban sustainability, and suggest new possibilities. These can include the cybernetically intelligent city (e.g. Citistat in Baltimore) webbed with wireless links and “smart” buildings; the seeding of communities through intersection reclamations, communal gardens, and businesses such as coffee shops and laundromats; ecological public art and sacred space; renewable, decentralized energy sources; green architecture and building materials; the understanding of parks and trees as part of the infrastructure of a city; the linking of environmental health with social and economic equality/justice; creating neighborhood commons and reclaiming toxic “brownfields”; community supported agriculture; and strategies for dealing with urban sprawl. Specific projects in western U.S. cities will be highlighted, such as the City Repair Project in Portland, the Cascade Land Conservancy in Seattle, the 100 year sustainability plan of Vancouver, B.C., and inner city food production in Oakland. We will also look at models of sustainability in cities such as Auroville, India, and Curitiba, Brazil.
8. Spiritual Ecology
This course is a survey of the emerging field of spiritual ecology. Spiritual ecology builds on larger movements, both within and without academia, that seek to (re)integrate culture and nature by drawing on religious motivations that connect the health of the earth with the belief in, and often experience of, the sacredness of the earth. In other words, that a spiritual view of nature is a precondition to wise management of the environment. As secular initiatives, such as scientists pronouncing the reality of global warming, or environmental laws, seem to be inadequate to deal with the escalating eco-crisis, religion and spirituality may be the last hope for creating the profound changes in humanity needed to avert the worst case scenarios. As the historical dominance of transcendent religions (which tend to put divinity off-planet) has contributed greatly to the current environmental crisis, alternative spiritual contexts are increasingly being sought out. This has contributed to the creation of new ones, the burgeoning NRMs (new religious movements), the revitalization of old ones, such as Western paganism, and the re-interpretation of others, such as ecotheology and creation spirituality, modified versions of Christianity. In this class we will see how spiritual ecologies are applied in ritually regulated ecosystems (those that link sacred places with biodiversity conservation), such as the sacred groves of the Dai people in SW China, the ordained forests and individual trees found in Buddhist communities of Thailand, the irrigation system of Bali run by water temples overseen by priests, and the protection of coastal waters from over fishing in East Africa by appeals to Koranic law. We will also explore the Gaia hypothesis, which gives personalistic form (implying the earth as a great organism) to many basic ecological understandings. The Gaian concept has been employed as a bridge between the worlds of science and spirit in efforts to re-sacralize nature in the Western mind. It therefore has a kinship with the genealogies of life (the animism and totemism of archaic anthropological parlance) associated with indigenous peoples, and holds potential to contemporize various ancient worldviews. These include the cyclic perspective of sentient life force moving through planes and forms of existence, a true ecology of spirits. We will also touch on various oppositions to spiritual ecology, including the more extreme ideologies, or ‘-isms’ of scientism, materialism, rationalism, Christian fundamentalism, Marxism, agnosticism, and the view that academia has no business in applied or advocacy initiatives.
Check her for a link to a published (2012) textbook by my university advisor Dr. Le Sponsel, on the subject ~ http://www.spiritualecology.info
9. An Origin Story of the Modern Drug War
What we do to Nature we do to ourselves, and visa-versa. This mirroring is even more apparent in our relationship with medicinal plants, the ‘greenprints’ of all medicine. With drugs, here defined as pharmaceutically colonized versions of these plants, we have gotten to the point where most of us prefer a coal tar product designed by a profit-motivated corporation over a Nature-evolved living green being to effect health. This does not seem to be a natural preference. It suggests that once certain factors of well-being, such as Nature intelligence, spiritual agency, and planetary purposes (teleology), are excluded from an ideology of health, the power to heal enters into a political free-for-all where the most dominant social group can dictate what heals and what harms. This class explores the current version of this situation. The drug war is cast as a war against Nature, and ultimately a war waged by the egoic collective of humanity against all that it has excluded, denigrated, or granted nonexistence, in order to shore up its ever crumbling illusion of control. Our exploration will briefly trace the history of plants, as elder life forms to humanity, as teachers in our integration into the society of Nature, as midwives to our evolution. When humans engage in cultural forms that suppress or aberrate evolutionary directives, they are in disagreement with the healing functions of plants. Rather than listen to the corrective ‘voice’ of the plants, like a rebellious teenager the usual modern reaction has been to demonize them, or apply the ‘artful fires’ of chemistry to strip the messenger from the message, the power from the context, unleashing rogue molecules with spectacular, yet disruptive, and often addictive, effects. These applications developed the ‘active constituent’ or ‘conquer and destroy’ model of herbal efficacy, in contrast to the more nourishing, balancing, ‘whole plant’ model of herbal efficacy, and is the basis for the additional tinkering with these molecules known as pharmacology. The effects of these drugs, and the rationales by which they are created, is reflected exactly in the monocultural norms of industrial growth society: one God of one gender, one way of knowing (reductionist) one world (physical) by one set of principles (mechanistic), one energy source (fossil fuels), one economic system, one superpower, etc. All are ecologically unstable, all to degrees addictive, and like a long speed bender, a great crash is culminating in the collective psyche as we reap the harvest of such choices. The plants, however, have not abandoned us, and are already sprouting thru the cracks in the road of progress as harbingers of another way, of a path of positive outcome. This course will conclude with signs of a renaissance in perennial notions and practices of herbalism, including medical marijuana, rain-forest religions, and earth-conscious social values.